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People v. Taylor

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

April 30, 2018

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
Bobby Taylor, Defendant-Appellee

          Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court District Court, City and County of Denver, Case No. 16CR7255 Honorable Andrew P. McCallin, Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Beth McCann, District Attorney, Second Judicial District Katherine A. Hansen, Deputy District Attorney Jacob R. Friedberg, Deputy District Attorney Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Nate Crowley, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado

          HART JUSTICE

          ¶1 In this interlocutory appeal taken pursuant to C.A.R. 4.1, we review an order from the Denver District Court suppressing the drug evidence that the defendant dropped on the ground when he was approached by the police on the street. We conclude that the trial court erred in suppressing the evidence because, at the time the defendant dropped the drugs, no seizure had taken place. We therefore reverse the trial court's suppression order and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 On November 2, 2016, at about 10 p.m., Denver Police Officer Damian Phillips was on bicycle patrol with a few other officers. Officer Phillips was riding his bike on the sidewalk of East Colfax Avenue when he saw two people, one male and one female, walking toward him. Officer Phillips noticed that the two were focused on something that the man held in one hand. Officer Phillips testified at the suppression hearing that, when the woman noticed him approaching, she said something to her companion, and the man closed his fist.

         ¶3 As the two people continued walking toward Officer Phillips, he stopped and straddled his bike a few feet in front and to the left of the pair and asked the man what he was holding in his hand. At this point, neither the man nor the woman attempted to walk around or away from the officer. The man dropped two rocks from his closed fist onto the ground. Given the prevalence of drug crime in the neighborhood, Officer Phillips suspected-correctly-that the rocks were crack cocaine. He immediately placed the man, Bobby Taylor, into custody. About fifteen seconds elapsed between the time that Officer Phillips first noticed Mr. Taylor and his companion and the time he put Mr. Taylor in handcuffs.

         ¶4 Mr. Taylor was subsequently charged with possession of a controlled substance, a class-four drug felony. He filed a motion to suppress both the drugs themselves and Officer Phillips's observation that he had dropped drugs, arguing that he was "seized" without reasonable suspicion the moment that Officer Phillips stopped his bike on the sidewalk.

         ¶5 The trial court conducted a hearing on the motion to suppress on March 16, 2017, and on May 4, 2017, issued an oral ruling granting the motion to suppress and making findings of fact in support of that ruling. These findings of fact were based on Officer Phillips's testimony and the footage from a body camera that Officer Phillips was wearing that evening. As relevant here, the trial court found that, from the moment Officer Phillips first approached Mr. Taylor, their encounter was nonconsensual. Specifically, the trial court found that this was not a consensual encounter because Mr. Taylor's path was blocked when Officer Phillips straddled his bike on the sidewalk. Based on its review of the body-camera footage, the court found that Mr. Taylor could not have retreated backward and that there was no way for him to get around or to the side of Officer Phillips because of the narrowness of the sidewalk. Additionally, the trial court found that the officer approached the defendant in an aggressive and threatening manner and that he was fully outfitted with a weapon, tasers, and a variety of other equipment. Finally, the trial court found that it was a busy time of the evening on Colfax and that Mr. Taylor and his companion were not doing anything that could reasonably have raised suspicion of criminal activity. Based on these findings, the court determined that Mr. Taylor had been seized during the course of the interaction and that there was no reasonable suspicion to support that seizure. The trial court therefore granted Mr. Taylor's motion to suppress, concluding that the drugs and Officer Phillips's observation of Mr. Taylor dropping them were the fruits of an unlawful stop.

         II. Analysis

         ¶6 In their interlocutory appeal, the People request that we reverse the court's suppression of the drugs and Officer Phillips's observations. They argue that Mr. Taylor was not seized at the time he abandoned the cocaine and therefore that the cocaine was not the fruit of an unlawful stop. We agree and therefore reverse the trial court's suppression order.

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶7 In reviewing a suppression order, we ordinarily defer to the trial court's findings of fact, so long as they are supported by competent evidence in the record. See People v. Madrid, 179 P.3d 1010, 1013 (Colo. 2008) (citing People v. Gennings, 808 P.2d 839, 844 (Colo. 1991)). When the controlling facts are not in dispute, however, "the legal effect of those facts constitutes a question of law which is subject to de novo review." Id. (quoting People v. Valdez, 969 P.2d 208, 211 (Colo. 1998)). Where, as here, a portion of the challenged incident is recorded, and there are no disputed facts outside of that recording pertinent to the issue of suppression, we are in essentially the same position as the trial court to determine the question of suppression. See Madrid, 179 P.3d at 1014 (citing People v. Platt, 81 P.3d 1060, 1067 (Colo. 2004)); People v. Al-Yousif, 49 P.3d 1165, 1171 (Colo. 2002); People v. Dracon, 884 P.2d 712, 719 (Colo. 1994)). ...

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